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VII. Environmental Management And Political Consensus

This section considers the depths of divide between economists and between economics and other disciplines, and what comes next. The debate on CBA has continued for several decades and is not likely to be resolved by its revival in the environment, where the same issues are repeated, albeit at a more complex level. The most likely shift may be towards discourse on deconstruction, which is barely represented in the environmental values debate. For an entertaining brief guide to ramifications of deconstruction debate, see Barnes (1994, pp. 1202-1040). Barnes explains how quantification via mathematics was expected to remove the vagaries in human geography but also ultimately failed since mathematics suffers from its own construction problems (Barnes, 1994, pp. 1021-1040). "The distribution (between everyday language and mathematics) is between the emotional and the factual," (Cole, 1969, p. 154). This difference also confounds the environmental valuation debate. Deconstruction of language alone could absorb academic high spirits in the environment values debate for another decade, but it would not help the planners and decision makers any more than in the past. Those contemplating such a diversion would benefit from reading Barnes' (1994) case against mathematics. Logic is no better in Derrida's deconstruction since its plausibility depends on the persuasiveness of language.

Much of the literature is turgid (though not Barnes), and tends in Rorty's words "to eff the ineffable," (Barnes, 1994, p.124, Rorty,1989). The most likely way forward is to develop institutions that treat the environment as a problem for planners in a democratic decision making context. See McFarquhar (1996). In reality, environmental decisions are driven by notions of who wins, who loses, and NIMBYism. Quantitative information purported to describe the national interest, as CBA and CV, is quite properly, not persuasive in opposing local camps, nor comprehensible (generally) to judges and lawyers, who desist from the hypothetical in any case!

Pearce (1994, p. 1335), in his confident defense of CV and CBA, suggests the main alternative to economic valuation is the legal and political system as the best reflection of citizens rather than individual consumer preferences. This raises other difficulties. Conservation, if legalized, becomes indifferent to its opportunity cost, a particular problem in the Third World. Political systems are not well informed; but are they better informed by valuation, which is contested by experts and hard for the non-expert to interpret? Political systems are seen as not representative and driven by lobby interests. This seems to be a fact of democratic life and should focus attention on how planners can integrate policy making into democratic politics, and how devolved planning can avoid conflict with national objectives, which are often relevant in environmental issues.

Perhaps the strongest case made by an economist for a decision approach that eschews CBA or CV is offered by Beckerman and Pasek (1997). Suggesting that choice between incommensurates is more difficult for society than for an individual, they ask how social valuations, which cannot be an aggregation of individual (emotional) choices, are to be made. What is the alternative to "a unified but artificial system like CBA," (Beckerman and Pasek, 1997, p. 79, Nagel 1979). They advocate discussion and debate, which takes account of resource constraints. Jacobs separates large-scale decisions affecting many people from decisions made by local authorities without debate, but subject to some sort of appeal procedure. But as Jacobs says (Beckerman and Pasek, 1997, p. 84) "public inquiries have almost always been creatures of the state structured to arrive at the outcome the government desires. The judges or inspectors, ...their terms of reference ...accessibility to public and ... pressure groups and their procedures have all been heavily constrained," (Jacobs, 1995, p. 12).

So, the judicial enquiry planning model in the UK is not satisfactory for relatively straightforward issues, never mind complex issues raised by the environment (For a detailed critique of the planning regime in UK see McFarquhar 1999). The embedding problem mitigates against debate. Voting on individual projects does not reveal public ideals any more than a CV survey to "clear one part of one lake (reveals) the public's concern for preserving lakes in general." Most environmental issues are recurring, not one-and-for-all-time decisions (Beckerman and Pasek, 1997, p.80).

Moreover, the beneficiaries of environmental protection can be identified and organized. Those who lose in terms of reduced consumption, welfare or other environment protection, that they might prefer, cannot easily participate in debate. CBA does consider resource costs of environment protection if it informs the political process, but is undemocratic in other ways (Andersen, 1993, pp. 210-212). The failure to consider resource constraints, "has meant there has been very little progress in elaborating the political mechanisms that are required," (Beckerman and Pasek, 1997, p. 82).

This leaves space for the planners to do what they claim to do best, i.e., resolve disputes in a politically acceptable milieu. Meanwhile at the multilateral and national level, there is increasing, if sometimes cosmetic, interest, in devolving planning and power to local government levels. Often this takes the form of devolving responsibility for policies that have failed at central government level, but without allocating to local authorities resources to deal with these policies nor, alternatively, tax collecting powers. Where tax collecting powers are devolved to local government, these powers are sometimes predicated, e.g., in the Philippines, on the assumption that local authorities will be more efficient collectors of tax to be handed over to central government!

These issues are general and central to the federalist and devolution debate, and cannot be rehearsed here. But consider the Three Gorges Dam displacing some 1.3 million people on the Yangtse River in PRC with much environmental damage. If it were a decision for local government it would probably not have gone ahead. It might have been replaced by a series of smaller dams with less engineering risk.

Does it seem unacceptable that local populations should resist successfully, a development considered in the national interest, but which could have been transferred to where it might be more acceptable locally? This is the reverse of a subsidized environmental amenity that benefits locals at national cost. If locals had property rights over their land, generally owned or controlled by the state, and could bargain for a reasonable share of the rent that follows development, they might well have "voted" for the dam. So local resistance to development, whether on genuinely environmental protection grounds or not, may reflect the structure of property rights and entitlement to rent. These would be taken into account and reformed in any political choice system based on social consensus. The recent experience with aboriginal and Indian land does not create confidence in state ownership, neither communist nor imperialist.

Nor is there clear evidence that more devolution of property rights with devolved local government would mitigate against the conservation of environment. Local experience of excessive logging often follows failure to protect customary property rights. Nationalization of forest by the state simply gives the rent to the state, which has the power to sell logging licenses against local opposition, whether driven by care for the environment or a claim over the rent.

Any consideration of re-building appropriate political institutions for dealing with environment must consider property rights. Where land is communal it may appear to facilitate social consensus, but it exposes the weakness of managing institutions, new or existing, especially in developing countries or those emerging from state control. It also reduces the scope for market-based instruments as an efficient approach to environmental problems. Without clear property rights, institutions cannot function effectively.

How valuation can best be used in environmental management is a serious issue (Spash 1996). The attempt to avoid the optimization of CBA, or even a cost-effective approach, still requires economic valuation; particularly arising from the budget constraints. The issue is not, can valuation be avoided, but how best to incorporate it in the democratic political process considering the difficulty of dealing with plural values. However given that the political process accepts some degree of valuation as well as scientific limits, it may be prepared to accept the more modest and transparent cost effective (CE) approach. The greater complexity of CBA and a single numeraire sticks in the throat. But the difference between CBA and CE is one of degree, not of principle; "effectively the argument is over the extent to which scientific and political constraints should operate over the goal of efficiency rather than the rejection of environmental economics," (Spash, 1996, p. 31). But some of the debate rejects welfare economics on the grounds of incommensurable values. The position taken here is that valuation can inform the political process only to the extent that it is transparent (Lowe, et al., 1993, p. 112) and presented in a form which can be understood by the public. To the extent that the evidence is not transparent, replicable, and impartial it will be discredited and properly so.

What type of institutions local, and central, are best able to incorporate valuation in a democratic political debate? The institutions must draw on science and economics and balance local, central, and international government considerations.

The recent trend to advocate devolution and decentralization in MOs implies a reinstatement of local as opposed to state property rights as well as reconsideration of the balance between private and communal. A beginning has been made with an attempt (Lowe, et al., 1993, p. 112) to classify techniques as scientific, economic and social, which recognize plurality and can inform a political debate. In this model results are graded rather than calibrated and presented for a political consensus. It is perhaps up to the planners to fill the gap between this type of information and the political discussion by decision makers. The danger is that environmental economics becomes a surrogate for social research, which should reveal what is excluded from economic assessment, i.e., "what ordinary people desire of everyday life and community," (Lowe, et al., 1993, p. 114).

Currently, the priority for attention is the incorporation in planning of political and democratic institutions, whether national and international or local and central. How are environmental interests of minorities to be protected at a local government level, or conflict resolved between local and central government? The rich literature on federations should inform the debate, but so far seems not to have impinged upon the valuation debate, which tends to be treated as an end in itself rather than a cul-de-sac. To debate details in valuation in absence of adequate institutions operating in a political context is to start at the wrong end.

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